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Kitchen Sink Drama

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'Kitchen Sink' is the term given to a particular type of drama, which focuses primarily on the trials and experiences of the urban working class. It stems from the wider 'Kitchen Sink' movement of social realism in art. Although material of this theme and nature can be found from numerous different sources, the term itself originates from and usually applies to drama/art produced in the United Kingdom, itself stemming from the 'Kitchen Sink' movement of realism.

Kitchen Sink originated in and was particularly big in the 1950s and 1960s, and experienced something of a revival in the 1980s and 1990s, but the tropes and methods it inspired lingered within drama produced outside of these periods. Within British drama, it revolves primarily around the experiences of the working class in urban and industrial areas such as those Oop North, such as Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, although urban working class in areas further south (primarily London) were also commonly represented.

The primary theme of the material was the kind of struggles and issues faced by these people on a routine, everyday basis; the term 'kitchen sink' itself evolves from the stereotypical image of scenes involving two working-class women conversing over their washing, angry confrontations whilst the wife is cooking dinner for the man of the house, and the like. While posh theater productions were often escapist fantasies, set in an aristocrat's luxurious mansion, Kitchen Sink dramas are set in a humble, cramped apartment with inexpensive furniture. As well, Kitchen Sink dramas depict working-class accents and they deal with subjects that were taboo at the time, such as premarital sex, abortion, and homelessness.

As a movement, it evolved primarily due to the rise of educated working-class writers, artists, and actors emerging from the post-war reforms of British society, including the education system, which opened up opportunities to those previously excluded from it. Many of its primary movers themselves grew up in working-class environs, and were writing as a direct reaction to prior stereotypical depictions of the working class; before this movement really took off, the depiction of the working class tended to be either forelock-tugging yokels who happily deferred to their social 'betters' or were simply violent, uncouth thugs or Lower Class Louts. As a consequence, Kitchen Sink Drama usually contains some kind of political agenda about it, often a leftist or socialist one, and is often motivated by political anger; not for no reason, the term 'Angry Young Men' was frequently applied to the early contributors, movers, and shakers involved in the movement. Most of them also experienced working-class life first-hand, as opposed to being middle-and-upper class types, and were motivated by the desire to show the working class experience as it actually was. People who work with their hands may be depicted positively as a street-smart Working-Class Hero who figures out problems that stymie the Cambridge-educated Upper-Class Twit.

As a consequence, expect works in this genre to be quite grim. True Art Is Angsty tends to dominate.

In lesser (and, it has to be said, more recent) hands, Kitchen Sink Drama can frequently be just as patronising as the earlier depictions, with the added bonus that the working-class experience is rendered as depressing as hell to boot. The apartments are bleak and grungy; the jobs are soul-crushing; and the characters are beaten down by poverty and the ceaseless ratcheting effects of industrial capitalism.

Done poorly, it tends to be True Art Is Angsty turned up to eleven; the experiences of the working class are simply reduced to unremitting and unending misery, with little warmth, joy, life, or humour presented; even the Angry Young Men tended to concede that working-class life was not without rays of joy poking through the gloom. Particular in later variations on the theme, there can also be a sense at times that the makers don't really know what life for the working class is like, but are just making it all glum and miserable because that's what they've seen in other, better dramas that came before.

While Kitchen Sink dramas are done in a range of media (novels, plays, films, etc), an important early form was the BBC's television play format.

Not to be confused with Conspiracy Kitchen Sink, Fantasy Kitchen Sink, Kitchen Sink Included, Morality Kitchen Sink, and Weapons Kitchen Sink. And despite being sometimes referred to as "Social Realism", this genre is not to be confused with Socialist Realism either.

Compare the Hood Film, a similar genre primarily associated with working-class black and Latino Americans.

Compare Italian Neorealism films, which are gritty depictions of impoverished Italians.


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  • Ken Loach is considered a master of this trope. Kes merges this with Coming of Age Story - dealing with a Yorkshire teenager whose only solace in the world is taking care of a kestrel from a nest on a nearby farm.
  • Film director Andrea Arnold often sets her works in council estates and centers on working-class characters. Wasp, Red Road and Fish Tank are some of her notable works. Fish Tank in particular is a gender inversion of the "angry young man" archetype common to kitchen sink dramas.
  • The Cry of the Children (1912) is about rich businessmen exploiting dirt-poor factory workers, and specifically about the horrors of child labor.
  • Love on the Dole, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Greenwood. It's set during the 1930s in Sheffield, beginning with the General Strike in 1926 and covering one family who gets pulled apart by mass unemployment. The book and the film were met with critical acclaim, moving people by the shocking depiction of poverty.
  • Marty, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1955, is a simple story about a butcher who falls in love with a schoolteacher, and his mother who is worried that Marty will abandon her.
  • In the late '50s and early '60s this genre overlapped with the British New Wave, to which belonged such films as...
    • Look Back in Anger (adapted from the play by John Osborne), starring Richard Burton as a Derby market stall owner who is frustrated by his class immobility (his university degree cannot persuade employers to look past his working-class background) and angered by the snobbery of his wife's family.
    • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, starring Albert Finney as a machinist at a bicycle factory in Nottingham who spends his off hours drinking and pursuing women while dreaming of a better life.
    • A Taste Of Honey, starring Rita Tushingham as a Salford girl whose mother re-marries and abandons her, after which she gets pregnant by a black sailor who ships out soon after, then she shares a flat with a gay artist.
    • The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, starring Tom Courtenay as a Nottingham factory worker's son whose lack of ambition leads him to petty crime and incarceration in a borstal.
    • This Sporting Life, starring Richard Harris as a Wakefield coal miner who becomes a professional rugby league player but struggles to find happiness off the pitch.
  • This Is England revolves around a group of young skinheads in early 1980s England basically trying to figure out where they fit in the world.
  • Many of Jimmy McGovern's films.
  • The 1980 Soviet film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, about a working-class girl struggling to make it in the capital.
  • The American play and resulting film The Subject Was Roses.
  • Min and Bill is about working-class people who live by the docks, and particularly about an old lady innkeeper raising a Doorstop Baby.
  • The Blot is about a professor and his poor family struggling to get by on the sub-poverty wages paid to university professors. Almost literally a kitchen sink drama, actually, as several scenes show Mrs. Griggs struggling to make tea for visitors or dinner for her hungry daughter while Mrs. Olson, the rich neighbor, prepares rich dinners.
  • Killer of Sheep is a bleak portrait of life amongst the urban poor in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles in the late 1970s.
  • Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles takes this to the extreme, as the whole of this 3 1/2 hour movie is Jeanne performing her mundane home tasks over three days. She makes dinners—potatoes are peeled and veal is breaded in excruciating detail. She brews coffee. She shines her son's shoes. She washes the dishes in the actual kitchen sink. She knits. She shops for groceries. She receives visitors who pay her for sex.
  • The films of the "Apu Trilogy", especially the first and second (Pather Panchali and Aparajito), show an Indian family in a backwater village desperately trying to raise themselves out of poverty.
  • Educating Rita deconstructs this, or else the bleakness present in some of the imitators. The protagonist is a Liverpool hairdresser who feels stuck in her life - her family and husband pressuring her to start having children. She seeks to better herself by getting an education. While the play has a bit of a Downer Ending - Rita being too sophisticated to fit in with her old friends, and yet still too working class to fit in with the high society people - the film is more hopeful where she ends the film with more opportunities than she did before.
  • Bad Girl is about a young married couple in 1931 New York trying to get by in The Great Depression and worried about providing for the baby on the way.
  • The Florida Project combines this with a Coming of Age Story, about a young girl growing up in a welfare motel in Kissimmee, Florida right outside of Walt Disney World while her mother struggles to hold down a job partly due to her own awful life choices.
  • Hers is a Mongolian drama about a family, middle-aged mother and two daughters, rendered homeless when the tiny kiosk that is their business and living space, despite being only the size of a van, is hauled away for demolition. They spend the whole movie battling a series of Obstructive Bureaucrats trying to get their humble little home back.
  • Nil By Mouth, the directorial debut of Gary Oldman, is among the hardest-hitting examples of the kitchen sink revival of the 1990s. Itís an extremely unflinching portrait of a working-class man and his family living in a South London council estate. Oldman cited Loach as a major influence on the film, but also said it was autobiographical to a degree.

  • There is a whole group of Swedish authors known collectively as "proletarian authors" (or "worker authors") from the early-mid 20th century that deals with this kind of material. Authors include Harry Martinsson, Eyvind Jonsson, Vilhelm Moberg, and Ivar-Lo Johansson.
  • From Russia, we have Maxim Gorky.
  • From Norway: Oskar Braaten, Alf Prøysen, Ingeborg Refling Hagen and Kristoffer Uppdal.
  • In America, whilst his works preceded the British movement, John Steinbeck's works often cover similar ground.
  • From Finland, V??nna.
  • One of the most influential kitchen-sink dramas was one by British playwright John Osborne, called 'Look Back in Anger' (1956).

    Live-Action TV 
  • British soap opera Coronation Street was a proto-example of this; it was one of the first shows that really looked at what life was like for the working class in Britain. In fact, most if not all British Soap Operas started out using elements of this trope, especially the cast of working-class everyman archetypes and occasionally some quite pointed social commentary. This caused a certain amount of confusion when Dallas turned up in syndication.
    • The three "main" British TV soap operas in fact cover pretty much the spectrum of British working-class life, or at least the key pillars of it; Coronation Street revolves around the urban working class Oop North, Emmerdale focusses on the rural working class in the villages and farms, and Eastenders focusses on the urban working class "down south" (specifically in the East End of London).
  • Nearly everything ever written by Jack Rosenthal, who got his start writing for the aforementioned Coronation Street, though he also expanded it into the "aspirational" lower-middle classes of Stepford Suburbia.
  • Paul Abbott's Shameless (and its American remake), which is semi-autobiographical, plays the trope for Black Comedy instead of Wangst.
  • Steptoe and Son was an example of this in sitcom form; it was one of the first television sitcoms to take the comedy out of upper/middle-class drawing rooms and into a poor working-class environment.
  • In The '70s, Norman Lear made a number of sitcoms that played around with this trope, and are often seen as some of the canonical American takes on it, though the grinding poverty and misery were often toned down compared to many similar British shows.
    • Sanford and Son, an American remake of the aforementioned Steptoe and Son, has much the same plot, with the added twist that the poor, working-class people are mostly black (oh, boy, class and race in one sitcom!).
    • Good Times was about a working-class black family living in a poor neighborhood in Chicago, though the humor eventually grew more broad as the catchphrase-spouting JJ became the Breakout Character.
    • All in the Family, an American remake of 'Til Death Us Do Part and the show that made Lear's name, had elements of this, though the focus of the humor was more on Archie's reactionary politics and the embrace of such by many working-class people in The '70s.
  • Some Monty Python's Flying Circus sketches invert or subvert this trope:
    • The Four Yorkshiremen sketch featured four stereotypical men from Oop North competing with increasingly outrageous stories of childhood deprivation.
    • Another sketch had a pure inversion; the well-dressed, soft-spoken son comes home to his family with his rough-talking, clearly working-class father... Only to reveal that the father is a theatre playwright living in the centre of London and the son has become a coal miner in Yorkshire. The whole sketch is like an inversed Cliché Storm Kitchen Sink Drama: Instead of having damp-lung and being overworked at the factory, the father has writer's cramp and is stressed out over press interviews, the father doesn't comprehend what the bloody hell a "tungsten carbide drill" is, and so on.
      Father: Hampstead wasn't good enough for you, was it? You had to go poncing off to Barnsley! You and your coal-mining friends!
      Son: One day you'll learn there's more to life than culture; there's dirt! And mud! And good honest sweat!
      Father: Get out! You labourer!
      • Naturally, as he's a playwright, he immediately lampshades the developments of the sketch as "I think there's a play in here".
  • The UK TV series Brass parodies this and a whole related bunch of tropes — or rather, parodies the genre of "Grim Oop North" kitchen sink dramas.
  • Only Fools and Horses sometimes dips into this trope. Del-Boy's zany schemes to make a quick buck and aspirations to high society are usually played for laughs, but underneath all that he and his brother Rodney are two men struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families.
  • Our Friends in the North is about four friends from Newcastle going through thirty years of varying fortunes in Britain.
  • Saturday Night Live featured a sketch with Daniel Craig as Danny, a Northern-accented man in an over-the-top kitchen sink drama.
    Daniel Craig: You know, I thought I'd never work again after they closed the mine. And the mill. And the pit. And the quarry. And the dirt hole. And the rubbish pile. And the Blockbusters...
  • Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff, about a group of unemployed tarmac layers struggling to find work in early 1980s Liverpool.

  • Dead Ringers: Invoked and mocked in a sketch about Time, where Sue Johnston is utterly unimpressed by the show proclaiming itself a "bleak Scouse drama", harshly comparing it to older dramas that she's been in.
    Sue Johnston: Listen, sunshine, this is Teletubbies compared to Boys from the Black Stuff.

  • Shelagh Delaney's play A Taste of Honey is one of the best-known examples of the genre.
  • A Raisin in the Sun follows a working-class black family in 1950s Chicago as they attempt to rise above their stations in life after they get a $10,000 life insurance check.